Wednesday, May 30, 2012

And That's The Way It Is -- Throwing Uncle Walter Under the Bus

I was watching the movie, "Bullitt" a few days ago on TV -- you know, the police drama with Steve McQueen, notable for that dramatic San Francisco car chase?  It's been years since I saw the film at a theater during its initial airing.  I still think it's a great motion picture, but what really kicked me into a time warp was a scene where Frank Bullitt shops at a grocery store and grabs some TV dinners -- wow, the darned things looked huge by comparison to today's TV dinners.  I don't buy TV dinners and haven't since I was a kid, but I see them at stores and today's version looks snack-sized next to those.  Things sure do change with time.

Apparently, like TV dinners, our impressions of famous people can also be downsized.  There's a book hitting the shelves this week entitled simply, Cronkite, a biography by Douglas Brinkley.  Rumored to add a bit of tarnish to the famed CBS-TV anchorman's well-groomed former image as the most trusted national TV news reporter in the country, Walter Cronkite's reputation (he anchored the CBS-TV Evening News from 1962 to 1981, and he died in 2009) is likely to get an unkind makeover in Brinkley's book.

We've discussed Cronkite previously on this blog for one reason:  His affiliation with and narration of the May 10, 1966 CBS-TV special, "UFO:  Friend, Foe or Fantasy."   Okay, let me take a sec here to blow the suspense -- choose fantasy, option number three.  At least, that's what the UFO subject looked like when CBS and Cronkite finished molding the clay reportage.  What we didn't know then but know now is that the production of this "special" had some unofficial official help in the background via biased and agenda-ridden consultants.

Of course, 1966 was a premium year for UFO reports, and a biased, debunking national TV news program shooting the UFO issue all to hell before millions, with Uncle Walter's grandfatherly assurances and assistance, was a skeptic's dream.  And Walter Cronkite and CBS did not disappoint the skeptics.
Much of the viewing audience checked in with a different response, however:  Outrage.  The May 28, 1966 issue of TV Guide featured three viewer comments, all of them negative toward CBS, and we may assume that because there were no letters on the other side that Cronkite's report received little but a sound drubbing among the national audience.  Katherine McLaughlin of California commented to TV Guide:  "What an unbiased report!  Only four eyewitnesses to UFO sightings, none of whom can be classified as
knowledgeable on aerodynamics.  Thanks, Walter Cronkite, CBS and the USAF."

From TV viewer John Lord in New Jersey::  "A one-sided report designed to give strength to those who fear to believe.  Shame on dear Walter for being a part of it."  And there was this from Joel Howard Marks of New York:  "Aside from a quick review of the recent Michigan sightings, there was little mention of the many reliable and sometimes spectacular sightings which have been made."

The May-June, 1966 issue of NICAP's UFO Investigator quoted one of many newspaper columnists who slammed the CBS report's nonsensical approach.

The Michigan UFO reports were not the only UFO-related hoopla buzzing in the press that month.  Just days before Cronkite's special, journalists latched onto revelations from a closed meeting in March where former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and essentially downplayed the importance or existence of UFOs.  Trouble was, just a couple of days before CBS-TV aired its negative piece, results of a Gallup Poll were splashed upon newspaper pages across the country, indicating that five million Americans believed they had seen UFOs.

On the very day that "UFO:  Friend, Foe or Fantasy" was to spew forth from TV screens all over the nation, the Associated Press and other news agencies reported that the Air Force was poised to award a contract to a private research entity to investigate the UFO issue (ultimately, that choice was the University of Colorado and Dr. Edward Condon -- enough said. . .sigh. . .sigh. . .)

Then, five days after the absurd Cronkite/CBS spectacle muddied the UFO story, the Sunday national newspaper magazine supplement, This Week, slammed back with a front page headline, "Return of the Flying Saucers," written by veteran radio talk show host "Long John" Nebel.  Nebel's quirky history of saucer-related radio talk originated in the fifties, long before Coast-to-Coast AM was a glimmer in Art Bell's eye, and his May 15, 1966 article reflected as typical Long John.  While he praised NICAP, Major Donald Keyhoe and important UFO encounters, he also wasted lots of print space recounting the ridiculous tales of favorite contactees featured on his radio show (Keep in mind that Nebel was, first and foremost, a broadcast showman, not a believer of tall tales -- in fact, he once hosted as a radio guest famed TV and motion picture star Jackie Gleason, a surprisingly strong, informed and thoughtful UFO proponent, who literally annihilated publisher Gray Barker's nonsensical UFO claims as Barker melted into an insignificant
puddle on the other side of a phone conversation.).

As Walter Cronkite's throne prepares for a bit of a dust-up with release of the new book, and I'm betting in advance that no mention of the infamous CBS-TV UFO report will appear, one hopes that journalists at all levels will educate themselves enough to realize that UFOs are not only newsworthy, their identity may be the top news of this or any century.  What enterprising young news reporter wouldn't live to die for that story if, first, not something wicked this way comes?